By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — For anyone working or trying to run a business, it’s the construction project that won’t end.

The Nicollet Mall makeover in downtown Minneapolis has stretched into its third summer. The city says the $50 million project remains on time and on budget.

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But an upcoming Super Bowl and mayoral race have led to new finger pointing and plenty of frustration in the final phase of construction.

Alain Lenne, the owner of La Belle Crepe on Nicollet Mall, lost his patio all of last summer, only to be told the portion near the South 9th Street intersection would be finished by spring.

Now, he’ll be without his outdoor seating again for most of this summer. Lenne estimates the construction has cost him $150,000 so far.

“For a small business like me, when you lose $50, it’s a lot of money,” Lenne said.

Lenne added that at least half of his customer base is gone, so he’s cut back on staff.

Still, it’s not so much the construction but the communication that seems to be his biggest complaint.

In March, he emailed Mayor Betsy Hodges asking if a grant program could be made available to help small businesses weather the storm.
Hodges responded, saying “the state did provide bond funding” and she’d revisit that question.

But after more emails asking for a status update, Lenne hasn’t heard back.

“If the city isn’t happy with me, I’m fine with that, because I’m not happy with them either,” he said.

A spokesperson for Hodges told WCCO she couldn’t fit an interview into her schedule this week.

Steve Cramer, the president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, acknowledges the project has taken twice as long as first thought. He blames extensive utility work under the 12-block area.

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“I have great understanding that this project has had an impact on business,” he said. “I mean, there’s just no way to avoid it.”

In the three years since construction started, several businesses have closed. From Vincent’s to Masa, Barnes and Noble and Macy’s.

The city hasn’t kept a count, but Cramer says not one closed its doors based solely on construction.

Tom Hoch is one of 10 candidates in November’s race for mayor and perhaps the most outspoken when it comes to his criticism of the project.

“We have businesses that rely on the vitality of this street. When you look at the vitality of this street, does that look vital to you now?” he said.

Hoch has called the Nicollet Mall construction project the most mismanaged construction project in Minnesota.

Cramer sees things the other way.

“The project is being managed in the best possible way,” he said.

Cramer says weekly emails and meetings for business owners are keeping people in the loop.

However, that means little at this point for those like Lenne, who says it will take years to make up for what he’s lost.

“I’ll be so happy when it’s done,” he said.

Cramer says the Downtown Council is still currently looking to fill at least six store vacancies on Nicollet Mall. The project is on track to be substantially complete by November, in time for February’s Super Bowl.

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As for offering grants to small businesses, Cramer explained that something like that hasn’t happened in the past, pointing to light rail construction on University Avenue as an example.

Liz Collin